The 2008-09 Champions League finalists are just about a game away from becoming the first teams to clinch a spot in the knockout stage but minnows like Celtic and Braga will go all out in their bid to shock these giants and keep Group G and Group H wide open. TheHardTackle previews all the matches from these two groups.
Celtic vs. Barcelona
Celtic Park, Glasgow
The spirited Scottish side were involved in two mind boggling games in their last two Champions League outings, with their latest being a narrow 2-1 loss against Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Fraser Forster was nothing short of sensational in the last meeting between these teams and it took a stoppage time goal from Jordi Alba to give Barcelona the three points.
Barcelona have looked a fairly sluggish side under Tito Vilanova and this has been brought to the fore in Europe. They kicked off their tournament with a narrow 3-2 win over Spartak Moscow and their inability to kill the game against Celtic almost cost them dearly. Domestically they have drawn just one game but shaky performances like that against Deportivo earlier in the season will have Vilanova worried.
Celtic’s form has dipped ever since their disheartening loss to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago. They have managed just one point in their last two league games, which came thanks to a scrappy 2-2 draw against Dundee United this weekend. The Scottish giants have beaten Barcelona just once in the seven meetings between the two clubs and that came way back in 2004. On the bright side, Celtic have never really struggled against the Spanish side with their worst ever defeat being a 3-1 result in the latter half of 2004.
Prediction: Celtic 0-3 Barcelona
Benfica vs. Spartak Moskva
Estadio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica,Lisbon
When these two sides met in the Russian capital two weeks ago, Spartak managed to make full use of the harsh weather conditions and stole a narrow 2-1 victory to register their first point this season. Benfica currently sit rock bottom in Group G having managed just one draw in the first three games. The Portuguese side have proven to be an attacking threat that’s hard to handle but like Juventus in Group E, they have struggled to kill games with clinical finishing.
Post the Spartak loss, Benfica have been flying high in the SuperLiga with two consecutive 3-0 wins over Gil Vicente and Vitoria Guimaraes. These two victories have helped them keep pace with leaders Porto and they are yet to lose a game in the league this season. One point that must be noted is that Benfica’s only home game in the Champions League was against Barcelona, an extremely difficult side to beat anywhere. With the reverse ties having begun, Jorge Jesus will know that two home wins should see them push for a knockout stage spot.
Spartak Moskva have been involved in some of the most exciting games in the Champions League this season. They seem to be able to score at will but defending has been a major problem for the Russia side. Having conceded seven goals in just three games, Unai Emery will have to make a conscious effort to ensure that his side doesn’t continue to leak goals. Their form in the Russian League has been just as topsy-turvy but their recent results have been promising. Two consecutive wins and managing to keep clean sheets in both could well be the boost that they needed before this crucial tie.
Prediction: Benfica 1-1 Spartak Moskva
SC Braga vs. Manchester United
Estadio Municipal de Braga, Braga
The last time these two sides met, fans were left wanting for more. The likes of Alan and Javier Hernandez were at their goal-scoring best and Braga’s early efforts were overturned by this determined Manchester United side. From 0-2 down to a 3-2 victory, Alex Ferguson’s side staged a stunning comeback and moved within an arm’s distance of qualification to the next round.
Manchester United picked up two massive victories following their remarkable comeback against Braga, the first being a 3-2 win over Chelsea and the next a 2-1 triumph over Arsenal. Having beaten two of the biggest sides in English football and moving to the top of the English Premier League, the Red Devils will go into this midweek fixture with utmost confidence in their ability.
Just like their opponents, Braga have seen a rise in their form after their previous Champions League game. With two wins in two games, Braga are hot on the trail of fellow Champions League competitors Porto and Braga. The hosts may have the worst defensive record in Group H and have leaked few too many in their domestic season, but their goal scoring potential is so large that Manchester United will have to be cautious in this fixture.
Prediction: Braga 2-1 Manchester United
CFR Cluj vs. Galatasaray
Dr. Constantin Rădulescu Stadium, Cluj-Napoca
An own goal, a sending off and a missed penalty, the reverse fixture between Cluj and Galatasaray was pure, unadulterated entertainment. Both side may have shared the spoils two weeks ago, but the sole point earned by both teams will give them both an advantage over Benfica in the fight for second place.
Cluj were struggling prior to their first meeting with Galatasaray and this proved to be some sort of catalyst to the club’s domestic form. They beat lowly Turn-Severin by a two goal margin, won comfortably in the domestic cup and comes into this Champions League game on the back of a 5-0 hammering of FC Brasov. Cluj haven’t struggled to score in Europe either, having managed to hit the back of the net at least once in each of their games.
Galatasaray have had a poor start to their Champions League campaign and languish at the bottom of Group H with just one point from three games. The defending Turkish league champions haven’t been able to score with the ease displayed by the other three teams in this group and have to buck up if they are to put up a challenge for second spot. Their domestic campaign has been a lot better and their latest victories (3-1 and 3-0) will spur them on in the Champions League.
Prediction: CFR Cluj 1-0 Galatasaray